Story Excerpt

Cloudchaser

by Tom Jolly

 

excerpt2_Cloudchaser

Illustrated by Eldar Zakirov

Chapter 1—Arnand, 2119

The toy robot danced wildly to the music being played. It flailed its limbs and spun around as sound poured from the ceiling, motions programmed by the laughing boy watching the dancing toy.

His older brother, Carlos, flung the door open to the small room and glared at his younger brother, alerted by his laugh. “What are you doing?” he demanded.

Lempa scooped up the toy robot and said, “Off,” and the robot stopped moving. “I’m playing. Don’t you have eyes?”

Carlos flushed red. “Don’t talk to me like that, or I’ll have your head cut off,” he said.

“Father won’t allow that.”

“I’ll be king someday.”

“Not today,” Lempa said.

“Let me see your toy.” He held his hand out. Lempa could see where this was going. Carlos would smash his toy. Lempa, though younger than Carlos, was taller and heavier, and he would jump on Carlos, and they would fight, and Carlos would lose that battle. Carlos would run to father afterward with his bruises, then Lempa would be whipped.

Lempa moved the toy behind his back. “No,” he said.

“You can’t say no to me.”

“Really? Listen; no, you can’t have my toy.”

Carlos clenched his jaw and fists. “Father will buy me ten of them.”

Lempa knew it was true. Whatever Carlos wanted, he would get. Whenever Lempa wanted something, it was carefully budgeted for out of his princely stipend. It didn’t seem like much, but he knew it was still far more than the average wage of a villager. His private tutor had made tours of the local villages part of his curriculum, and he found some small pleasure in wearing drab disguises to make himself appear common and learning to imitate their drawling speech.

“Then go ask father for ten of them,” Lempa said, tired of the posturing bully. “Before I have to beat you again.”

Carlos turned a deeper shade of red. “Father would have you whipped!”

“Not if I accidentally killed you. Then I would be heir to the throne.” The words had no more left his mouth than he realized how dangerous they were and covered his mouth with his hand. “I didn’t mean that!” he said.

But Carlos’ eyes were twin moons, in shock at Lempa’s words, and he ran from the room.

Lempa was whipped with a willow switch until welts rose from his back, even though Carlos had no bruises to show for their encounter. Just his word that Lempa had threatened him.

Weeks later, Lempa bought a book. It was a rare book, one of a kind, signed by a dead author well known within the kingdom. The subject matter was of mild interest to Lempa: a traveler’s guide to the planets in local star systems mixed with semi-fictional accounts of the author’s travels.

He was sitting on his bed, reading, when Carlos barged in again one day, tired of playing with and programming ten awkward toy robots.

“What are you doing?” Carlos asked.

“I am reading a book, as you can clearly see.”

“Give it to me.”

Lempa snorted. “Go away.”

Carlos approached the bed and read the spine. “Margi’s Travels on Other Worlds. Father will buy me all of her books.” He crossed his arms, as though it were a challenge.

“You don’t read anyway.”

“I will have all her books, and you will only have the one.”

“This one is signed by the author,” Lempa retorted. “It’s unique. None of yours will be. You can never have this book.” He held it up and waggled it in the air like bait above a fish. Lempa watched the rage build in his brother and wondered for a moment why he did this, since it invariably ended up in a whipping.

“I will get all my books signed!”

“You can’t,” Lempa goaded. “The author has been dead for thirty years. Unless you can raise the dead, and even if you’re king someday, you can’t do that. This is one-of-a-kind. You can never have it.”

Carlos ran to the king with Lempa following behind, curious as to how he would present his case this time. The boys found him in the castle’s library. After Carlos had superficially explained the situation, their father said, “It’s Lempa’s book. He bought it. If you want to read it, go buy a copy.”

“His is signed by the dead author!”

“Then get a book signed by a dead author. I’m sure there are plenty of them,” the king told him. “Even in my own library. Just pick one out.”

“But it won’t be his,” Carlos said, pointing at Lempa.

“Ah,” said the king, leaning back in the cushioned greatseat in the library, looking understandingly at the two of them. “You will have to learn that you can’t own everything. If you try, the effort will consume you. And your kingdom.”

Lempa hesitantly smiled at this result. He still had his book, his brother was angry, and he wasn’t being punished. All was good. But a few days later, he found his book torn to shreds on his bed, even though he’d hidden it away in a secret compartment in his bureau.

He bought a similar signed book, taking pains to flaunt it in front of Carlos, then quietly located a Keeper in town who would hold valuables for a small price until one was ready to retrieve them. The woman had a good reputation and gave him a word and number to memorize when he left the book in her keep so he could fetch it at a later date. She didn’t ask him his name, so he never worried about his brother locating his stash. He would let Carlos catch a glimpse of each new acquisition to torment him, then hide them away with the Keeper.

As he continued to buy one-of-a-kind items, he discovered that some of them became even more valuable over time, and supplemented his stipend by buying and selling items. People in the villages around the castle began to recognize him as an eclectic young collector who had an eye for rare and valuable items. There were rumors that he might be royalty, but he denied them all. His tutor had trained him well in playing the part of a shopkeeper’s apprentice, little more than an errand-boy.

He was twenty-five when their father died and Carlos ascended to the throne. Though Lempa had long forgotten his childhood threat to kill Carlos, the new King Carlos clearly remembered it, along with his own threat to cut off Lempa’s head, thus preventing any ideas that Lempa might have about taking the throne for himself.

He was hauled from his room one night by the king’s guards and escorted to the castle’s surgery where the procedure of having his head removed was explained to him.

*   *   *

Chapter 2—Icehouse, 2190

The beer and wine festival reminded Nemala of Earth. A band played on stage, some sentimental tune from the 2150s, while people wandered about on the dark green lawn. But there were stark differences; Hades Station, the fusion reactor orbiting the planet, provided their sunlight. Smaller compact fusion reactors powered supplemental lighting for the area, creating a blur of secondary shadows. It was Icehouse’s version of daylight, something that every darkplanet had.

Nemala drifted from booth to booth, flashing her wristchip for a sample of wine, or sometimes a sweet beer. Her father had tried to teach her everything he knew about alcohol before he died, although he always groused about her lack of sophistication. “It either tastes good or it doesn’t. Why should I worry about technicalities?” she’d asked him one day.

“Because other people care,” he said. “It’s part of the culture.”

“You want me to impress some pompous ass with my knowledge of wine trivia? Can’t I just enjoy the wine?”

He grumbled, and she learned things by accident just because he was always going on about them. It was one of the things that got her interested in bioengineering.

She held a glass of Merlot, the oldest grape imported from Earth, and breathed deep, imagining she could smell Earth in it.

“It’s the yeast,” the man in the booth said. “That’s what gives it that nutty smell you’re getting.” He waved a hand at the false sun overhead. “I have to use supplemental lighting to get this strain to grow on the grapes. But it makes all the difference.”

Nemala nodded and took a sip. It was a very pleasant wine. She smacked her lips noisily, and the man raised his eyebrows. “That’s nice,” she said. “Plain old Saccharomyces cerevisiae or some special tweak?”

The man made a curious face and said, “You know the name of the yeast?”

Nemala turned and swished her glass at the rest of the crowd moving between the booths. “Wouldn’t you expect that from a bunch of wine snobs?” Her speech was slightly slurred, though she tried to compensate for it by enunciating too hard and knew she was making it worse.

The man laughed. “So you’re a connoisseur of fine wines, and how they’re made, then?”

She grinned at him. “Not really. I work at Doyes Pharma, the biotech place. Their main thing is gene-mining yeasts for interesting medicinal products, so.” She drank, then put down her empty glass and stared at it as though unsure where the wine had gone. “I know a lot of yeasts. Rosewood Wines, huh?” she said, reading the label on the wine bottle. “You work there?”

“I own it. I’m Bogun Rosewood,” he said.

“Nemala,” she said. “Pleased to meet you. So this is fermented with a mutated strain of yeast?”

“Yep, imported from France about six years ago, if you can believe that.”

“Why not? I’m guessing it doesn’t cost much to ship a gram of yeast a light-year. Another?” She held out her wrist and the glass. Bogun poured her a smaller glass and didn’t scan her subdermal chip. She raised her glass up to Hades Station and stared contemplatively through it. “Doyes messes with extremophilic yeasts, you know. They wouldn’t ever exist naturally on grapes, or any other crops, really. You know what would be cool to try?”

“Wine made using extremophilic yeast mutations designed by your company?”

She squinted one eye and pouted. “I don’t like people reading my mind, you know, Bogun. But the thought did occur to me that it might make for some interesting tastes.” She took another sip, then added, “And some of the Doyes strains spit out psychotropics. For medicinal purposes, of course.”

Bogun grinned. “You think Doyes Pharma will loan us their patented, unique, extremophile yeasts to make wine, do you?”

She tipped her glass at him and winked. “Their security sucks.”

It started as a joke, but the more they talked, the more detailed and serious it became.

It was easy to smuggle out a few samples from Doyes Pharma. The addition of an extreme environment of heat or cold, pH variations, radiation, pressure or chemicals, would certainly have some unique effects on flavor if the wine or beer could survive the change. It was worth testing.

Bogun Rosewood lived in a relatively small spaceship at the port. It was crowded with brewing equipment, and his only rent was port fees that were paid for by the products of his small operation. He tinkered with the ship and the brewery constantly, apparently much more skilled in both areas than Nemala would have guessed, given the environment. He also rented a few small greenhouses a few kilometers from the spaceport to grow grapes, occasionally purchasing grains from other growers so he could dabble in beers and whiskeys.

Nemala visited him when she brought home a new strain of yeast, and whenever he finished a new batch of extremo-beer or wine. They would sample the results together and hope that there was nothing toxic in the mix. She avoided the pathogenic yeasts and stuck with Doyes Pharma’s mutations of standard wine, beer, and bread yeasts, but it was a thrill-ride of dangerous experimentation; some of the psychotropics came out in the wine, mixed in with the alcohol. Eventually, she was spending more time in his ship than in her apartment, even though she referred to the cluttered vehicle as his “spaceshit.”

“They’re going to catch you smuggling the yeast samples out one of these days, you know,” Bogun told her in bed one evening.

“I doubt it,” Nemala replied. She rolled over and toyed with the sweaty hair on his chest. “You know that Gamay you moaned over? From the rad-resistant yeast? Doyes has two tweaks on that strain that I can bring over tomorrow night.”

Three weeks later, they had a peculiar blend they referred to as “empathic wine.” Less than mind reading, more than intimacy, and it required that both parties imbibe, but oh, the sex was incredible. They didn’t know what caused the effect, speculating on everything from pheromones to synchronized brain waves, but at that point they didn’t care. What they knew was that they could both retire once they started selling it. This wine was one in a billion.

Bogun labeled the wine “Empathy,” and it didn’t take long for word-of-mouth to get out once a few couples had sampled the wares. After the first dozen bottles sold, he bumped the price up a hundredfold and still sold through the first batch in less than two weeks. He already had a regular network of under-the-table middlemen for his unlicensed sales, so it was easy to move. Rumors pushed the price up even further as Bogun waited for the second batch to ferment, which would make his distributors happy when they marked up the product.

“I’m going to quit my job at Doyes,” Nemala told him one evening, returning from work.

“Th’ secon’ batch isn’ even done yet!” Bogun was sampling-drunk again. “Cheg thish out,” he said. “I made some beer wi’ th’ special yeast.” He sloshed a tall glass at her. “Drink!”

She took the glass from him and sniffed at the amber fluid cautiously while surreptitiously digging a pill out of a belt-pouch. The ale carried the slight nutty odor that she recognized from the yeast. “Huh,” she said. “It smells nice.” She dropped the pill in the glass as she took a small sip. “Tastes good, too.”

She handed the glass back to him, and he grinned foolishly, then took a large swig himself. He stood there swaying for a moment, slowly stiffening, then scowled at her. “You put a Soberup in my beer. I had a nice buzz going.”

“You sample your wares too much, my dear. Anyway, I wanted to talk serious. I’m quitting my job.”

Bogun nodded and put his glass down. “Before you get caught. Wise choice. What are you going to do after?”

“I thought I might work at a winery.”

Bogun grinned. “I might be hiring.”

“Thinking more like a partnership,” Nemala said.

“I’ll have to discuss that with the owner,” Bogun said. Nemala glared at him, and he held his hands up. “All right, all right! Equal partners. We have a lot of your extremo-yeasts here already. I could set up a lab on the ship’s loading dock for you.” He patted the side of one of the vats. “We can easily afford it after this new batch is sold off. Though I’d really like to see what it tastes like after it’s properly aged a few years.”

“You could always put aside a few bottles,” Nemala suggested.

“What? At these prices? Not a chance.”

*   *   *

Chapter 3—Icehouse, 2190

Lempa Tarren never bought weapons for his collection, as a general rule. But an alien weapon from the ruins on the Bell worlds sparked his interest.

The purchase had been arranged through several intermediaries, cross-checking the validity and legality of the acquisition, but the transaction still ended up in a poorly lit warehouse, as though there was something shady about the deal. Lempa wore a disguise that made him appear nearly human, covering most of the black plastic body plates with clothing, and used a public AI car to get there.

“Why all the subterfuge?” Lempa asked the salesman.

“That’s a fair question,” the salesman replied while opening the trunk on his car. “First off, this is a big-ticket item. Very rare. It’s alien, so we had to bend a few rules and grease some palms to get it here, mostly legal. A lot of people are interested in it just for the alien materials tech, ignoring the fact that it’s a weapon, but lucky for them, the Bell worlds are littered with the bloody things.”

“So the guns aren’t really rare at all?” Lempa asked, thoughtfully tapping his plastic lower lip with a carbon-black plastic finger.

“No, Mr. Tarren. They aren’t. But you knew that already, I think. The gun is just a carrier for the prize. As far as anyone knows, there is almost no ammunition in existence for these guns and no sign of the species that made them. Not living, anyway. We’re confident that the guns are over eight thousand years old. A lot of the ammo was used up in testing back when folks thought the stuff was unlimited, just so they could figure out how it worked. You know, to find out where the targets were going. By then, some of the ammo was smuggled off the planet where it was put to good use. You might recall that skirmish around Lysenko when all those ships just disappeared.” The salesman pulled a rifle out of his trunk. It looked like a toy: bright red and green and smaller than an average human might use. Lempa wondered if alien vision functioned at nonhuman wavelengths and the gaudy colors were strictly a human interpretation.

“Secondly,” the salesman continued, “we’re a full-service dealer.” He waved his empty hand around at the tin-roof warehouse they stood in. “The environment is part of the purchase, providing the ambiance one might expect when dealing with gunrunners. Like wine at an art show.”

Lempa chuckled. “Yet, the important thing is that I’m buying a unique item. Your boss assured me that this item was one-of-a-kind. That’s all I collect.”

“Of course, Mr. Tarren. Everyone knows that.”

It was true. His eccentricity had earned him a place in the news; he’d sleep for ten years, come out of stasis, shop for a new item for his collection, and then return to stasis. His collection was famous, even if no one else had seen it.

“If your contacts have done their homework,” the salesman continued, “you know there are only two rounds of ammunition in existence for this gun.” He lifted the gun, pointing it casually at an old 2167 Tesla on the far side of the warehouse. “If you like, I can demo the product right now, and then you’ll have the very last bullet in existence. Assuming you’re committed to buying it, of course. Or, you can take both of the bullets and dispose of the extra one at your leisure.” He held the gun out to Lempa.

Lempa hesitated, reluctant to touch the gun.

“Don’t worry,” the salesman said, patting his jacket and smiling. “The last round is in a case in my pocket.”

Lempa nodded, took the gun, and examined it curiously, but he already knew he was going to make the purchase.

“What happens to the target?”

“Nobody knows!” the salesman said. He spread his fingers suddenly, mimicking an explosion. “Poof! It’s gone. No boom, no debris, no gas, no drifting molecules, just gone. I have some video from the surviving ship at Lysenko, if you’d like to see it.”

Lempa returned the gun to him. “I would, thank you. Two bullets, you say?”

The salesman nodded.

Lempa pointed the gun at the Tesla and looked at the salesman for affirmation. If he shot the gun, then the sale was sealed.

The salesman smiled and tipped his head at the car. “Go for it.”

Lempa switched his optics to high-speed recording and shot the car. The bullet hit it, then a pocket of something expanded and swallowed it with darkness amid a confusion of shapes, and then it was gone with a soft puff of air. Lempa held the gun up and stared at it. Of course, it was just an alien slug thrower. The real power was in the bullet.

The salesman nodded again and pulled the encased last bullet out of his inside pocket, turning it over to Lempa. “It’ll look good in your collection, I’m sure. A gun with one bullet. You ever think of making your collection public? I’m sure there are a lot of people who’d pay good money to see it.”

Lempa eyed him levelly, until he was sure the man was uncomfortable, then simply said “No.”

*   *   *

Hades Station passed below the horizon and evening came. Icehouse was one of hundreds of settled darkplanets beyond the useful reach of sunlight from any star, and one of the stepping stones of the slow migration leading to other stellar colonies near Sol.

On the surface of Icehouse, dozens of smaller fusion reactors kept the streetlights shining and provided power to the community. When Lempa returned home after dark, he found the single door to his mansion broken in and police hovering around asking questions. Leaving the alien gun in his trunk, he approached his house, his tall, black-plastic figure pushing past the policemen who tried to delay him. It was easy to do; he was fifteen centis taller and fifty kilos heavier than the largest of them.

Inside, he quickly surveyed the entry lobby: two policemen in uniform and a detective, three smoldering security drones lying on the floor, and a corpse with a charcoal-rimmed hole in his chest. The corpse was the man he’d hired to guard the place, supplementing the drones. “Mr. Tarren?” the detective asked.

He spared a glance at the detective, then, ignoring him, walked into a larger room containing several display cases. Most of the cases were broken open, the contents missing. The items too big to carry were untouched.

The detective followed him into the display room. “Mr. Tarren?” he said again, a little louder than before.

“What?” he barked, then shook his head and took control of his anger. “Yes, Detective?”

“I see you have some security cameras stationed around the room. Can we get a copy of the video?”

“Yes, of course.” He blinked once while accessing the component memories, then said, “I just sent the video from the cameras and drones to your station.”

The detective raised his eyebrows. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if we find anything useful. Were you notified when the break-in occurred?”

“No. I should have been, however. There are sensors—” He stepped back into the lobby and looked down at the corpse, wondering if the security guard had had anything to do with the lack of notification. He’d only hired him two months before, highly recommended, but Lempa wondered if he’d been involved with the theft, and someone higher in the ranks was cleaning up after themselves.

“The items that were stolen. Anything special about them?”

Lempa nodded. “Of course. They were all unique. Last of their kind. That’s what I collect. And they were all popular items. Easy to market, lots of potential collectors, and hard to trace.” He thought of the shattered cases: a rare bottle of fifty-year-old Laphroaig Scotch from 2080. It would probably just be piss in a month. There was a signed letter from Anders Vandermeer to the Journal of Gravitational Physics on the theory behind stasis. And a one-off wooden puzzle box from puzzle craftsman Arturo Ransom custom-made for his spouse. And more. All priceless, all gone. He swept his gaze around the room, anxiety eating at him like acid rain.

“Any other items lost?”

He shook his head. “I think not. I only keep a small fraction of my collection displayed at any time. For my own viewing pleasure. The rest of the collection is securely locked up.”

“Where’s that?” the detective asked.

Lempa ignored the intrusive question. “Once you’re done reviewing the video, I’d ask that you delete it. My collection is not for public viewing. I didn’t work to get this collection just to share it.” He glared down at the detective, fully aware that his height and his angular plastic face were intimidating. The detective resisted taking a step back, but he did give a satisfying twitch.

The detective cleared his throat and asked, “Any idea who might have done this?”

Lempa turned away from him and stared at the wreckage. Of course he knew. A king from another world did this, hiring the local riff-raff to do his bidding, still trying to put Lempa in his place. The local police could do nothing about that. “Not really,” he replied.

The detective grunted. Lempa could see he didn’t believe him.

Broken glass, steel, and splinters of wood littered the display area. He waited patiently for homicide to get rid of the corpse, take their photos, look for prints, and leave, then sat down on a unique, but not particularly valuable, wooden chair and sighed an all-too-human sigh. He felt tired, worn down, but knew that was just psychological. The energy core powering his frame and crystalline mind was performing just fine.

As long as he lived among people, especially with his reputation in collectors’ circles, he would always be a target. King Carlos used that fact like a sledgehammer. This wasn’t the first time he’d lost valuable items. What he needed was a place where no one could visit. A hiding place where he could be alone with his prizes, unique in its own right. The last of their kind, on a world no one could find. It was time to leave Icehouse and buy his own planet.

*   *   *

Chapter 4—Icehouse, 2190

Bogun hauled a case of Empathy wine into the Dark Star Pub and put it on the counter. “How many bottles you want this time? The price has gone up; I’m asking three hundred credits a bottle, limit six bottles.”

“What?” Maxi cried. “It was only two hundred last week.”

“Supply and demand, Maxi. Do you want any? I’ve got five more pubs to hit before Hades sets.”

Maxi crossed her arms. “What’s with the limit on bottles?”

Bogun unloaded one bottle and put it on the counter. “Everybody wants it and I want to keep everyone happy.”

“Or the same level of unhappy.”

He shrugged. “Same thing. You want it or not?”

“So if I take six at three hundred credits each, maybe you could sell me a few more at four hundred?”

Bogun laughed. “I’ll charge you that next time I come through, if that helps.”

“You’re an asshole, Bogun.”

He grinned as he handed her the rest of the six-bottle case, which she immediately stashed behind the counter.

“Beer before you go, Bogun?” She took his card and transferred the credits to it.

“You still have that chewy dark stout from Pembrook?”

“We do. Full pint?”

“Sure.”

It was midafternoon, and the bar was empty, the best time to make deals with the owners. While Bogun sat and sipped his beer, Maxi put one bottle of Empathy on display behind the bar. Five minutes later, another man walked in. He was neatly dressed, but his face was scarred and his nose had obviously been broken a few times. From the look on Maxi’s face, Bogun could tell the guy was trouble.

He sat down and ordered a beer. “I see you got some more of that special wine,” he said, in between sips. He nodded at the bottle of Empathy.

Maxi pointedly avoided glancing at Bogun. “We got it in last night.”

“I’ve heard real good things about it. Isn’t Rosewood a local winery?”

“I think so. I’m not sure where they’re located.”

Bogun stole another glance at the guy and thought, you do not want to lie to this man, Maxi. But he was glad she did.

“Maybe you have his phone number?” the man said. “I’m a distributor.”

Mobster, Bogun thought. He carries himself like a thug.

“The morning manager places the orders, so he’d have it. Can I give him your number?”

“Nah. I’ll just come by in the morning. He’ll be working?”

“Yeah, he’ll open up at nine.”

“Great.” He took another sip, looked over at Bogun a few seconds longer than necessary, then turned and left, leaving most of his beer on the bar.

Maxi frowned at the waste of the beer, then glanced over at Bogun with an apologetic look.

“You know who he is?” Bogun asked.

“Have you heard of the Renner Cartel?”

“Yeah. Drugs, smuggling, and bad loans. Expensive wines aren’t exactly their line of business.”

“It’s hardly a wine, is it? The Cartel has a reputation for taking over profitable operations, and not by buying them out. I bought you a little time, but they’ll be looking for you.”

“Thanks, Maxi.” He tossed back the rest of his beer and walked out of the bar but returned a minute later with another bottle of Empathy in his hands. He handed it to her. “This one’s for you and Jim. Save it for a few years, wait for a special occasion, okay?”

“Sure, Bogun.” She looked down at the bottle grimly. “This will be the last one, won’t it?”

“We’ll see,” Bogun said and left.

*   *   *

Bogun was tying down equipment for transport when Nemala came in. “We going somewhere?” she asked.

“I’m not sure yet, but I want to be ready. One of the Renner Cartel thugs came into Maxi’s asking about getting in touch with me. I guess when wine gets expensive as drugs, the drug dealers start getting interested.”

“You think they’re coming after us?”

“Yeah, I do.”

She sat, watching him work. “I’m surprised they haven’t just bought a glassful as a sample and tried synthesizing the active ingredients.”

“They could try. But I thoroughly filter out the yeast before selling it, so they won’t be able to reproduce the active ingredients unless they can synthesize them some other way, without the yeast. But it’s more likely they’ll just take over the operation and force me to work for them.” He grabbed another tie-down strap, carried a crate into storage, and found a place for it. “We could go into hiding for a few years. Start a new batch, bottle it, then wait in stasis while it ages. It’d be worth a small fortune when we came out with it.”

“‘We’?” Nemala asked.

He stopped working and looked at her with concern on his face. “Um. I just thought . . . since you quit your job . . .”

“That I’d want to jump up and fly off to who-knows-where with you?”

“. . . sort of. Do you want to stay here on Icehouse? I mean, you could. There’s no real link tying you to the wine. The Cartel wouldn’t be looking for you.”

“So you don’t care whether I go with you or not?” Nemala pried.

He sighed and leaned against a crate, holding a hand out imploringly. Nemala laughed, walked over to him, and kissed him. “You’re so easy,” she said. “Where could we go that they couldn’t find us?”

“Maybe a small asteroid in the middle of nowhere? Someplace where the ship’s heat won’t be detectable?” He gazed up at the ceiling, curling his lip, thinking. “I’ve got an idea,” he said. “There’s this crazy collector guy I know, Lempa Tarren. I tried to sell him the last bottle from a limited-run whiskey batch I put out. He didn’t go for it and gave me a long lecture about collectability. But I learned that he intends to take his whole collection off-world. He means to go into hiding. I have a dock-loader friend who could put a tracker on his ship. We could follow where he goes. He’s got a habit of going into stasis for ten years at a time, then coming back out for a shopping spree for his collection. If we can land on his hidden planet and stay there for over five years while he’s in stasis, we can claim a thousand hectares under planetary squatter laws. We’d get our wine and some property out of it.”

“If it’s one of the dark worlds, it may not be worth the photons to file a claim.”

He rubbed a whiskery chin. “I doubt if he’ll pick an ice ball. He said, ‘Someplace unique, like my collection.’ So that eliminates asteroids, drifting free in deep space, and any run-of-the-mill unsettled dark planet. Stasis requires a lot of energy, so his ship would stand out like a light bulb on a dark world. I bet he’ll pick some place that has decent natural heat to camouflage his ship’s heat signature, maybe geothermal? But well off the stepping-stone path to Teegarden. Hard to find. Someplace nobody would think of looking for a madman’s collection. It’ll be perfect for us. In stasis, five years will go by in a blink. We’ll be rich.”

He grabbed another tie-down strap. “In the meantime, I’ve got to move the ship to another dock where the Cartel can’t find me tomorrow morning. I’ve still got an alias or two I can burn, and it’ll buy us a few days.”

*   *   *

Chapter 5—Cloudchaser, 2192

“If the point of this is to keep from getting visitors, this is the place for you. Nobody wants to start a settlement on a planet that’s going to be destroyed in twenty thousand years. And it’s unique, as far as we know, which should make you happy,” Coreman-27 said. “It aligns well with your collector’s sensibilities. One-of-a-kind.”

Lempa Tarren nodded thoughtfully, observing the two planets live for the first time. Both were dark planets, with no proper sun to warm them. One was a little larger than Uranus, and the other a little smaller than Earth, and they both would normally have been invisible against the black carpet of space. But the Earth-sized ball was in orbit around the gas giant with a gap of just under a thousand kilometers between them, orbiting it every three hours, and that made things very interesting. “The glow,” he said, “what causes that?”

“The smaller planet, which we’ve tentatively named Cloudchaser—as the new owner, you can, of course, call it whatever you like—orbits the primary, Cloud, at about fifteen kilometers per second. Its mass drags some of Cloud’s atmosphere higher as it passes, creating a tenuous band around the equator, which it impacts as it orbits. The blue glow on the leading edge of Cloudchaser is caused by the hydrogen colliding with its atmosphere. It shades to orange near mid-planet. The white glow you can see behind Cloudchaser is from the lightning passing between the two planets, and the shifting green and blue curtains on the trailing side are from the auroras.”

“It’s stunning,” Lempa murmured. “Beautiful.”

Coreman-27 raised an artificial eyebrow at Lempa.

Lempa noticed the look. They hadn’t had much time to become familiar on the way out to view the planet; both had been in stasis for almost the entire trip. “You seem surprised. I am not an artificial intelligence. My memories and sensibilities are completely human, even though the storage is crystalline.” He turned back to look at the planet. “But I believe I am unique.”

“Like your collection.” Coreman-27 glanced behind them, where a red 1959 Chevrolet pickup truck was on display in the middle of the deck: the last one of its kind, restrained in a decorative steel frame. The walls of the ship held similarly unique treasures in brightly lit alcoves. A collection of things for a single viewer to admire.

“Just so,” Lempa said. “You said we could land on this planet? That it has an atmosphere of sorts?”

“Yes, it does. The configuration between the two planets is surprisingly stable. Cloudchaser is tidally locked to the primary, so the same hemisphere is always facing Cloud. It’s well outside the Roche limit, and the heat that supports its atmosphere is generated by the friction with Cloud’s hydrogen. The leading side is over two hundred degrees Celsius, but the trailing side has a small, stable area surrounded by high mountains that stays around twenty Celsius, and is expected to go no higher than thirty degrees over the next ten thousand years. The degradation of the orbit is very gradual. The kinetic energy of the gas giant’s hydrogen isn’t enough to strip the heavier atmospheric molecules from Cloudchaser, so the air pressure in the temperate zone remains relatively constant. Tolerable even by human standards.”

“Your company, Dark Planet Surveys, told me that this planet would remain isolated and hidden, a secret,” Lempa said. “Even you will have the memory that you were ever here erased. But if that’s true, how did DPS find this planet to begin with? Couldn’t anybody locate it again?”

Coreman-27 shook his head. “First of all, my memory isn’t partially erased. I’ll be destroyed. I’m a temp copy of a real person back at DPS headquarters. Highly interactive, you see, but not AI. After the closing documents are encrypted and beamed back to Icehouse, I will self-destruct. As for the planet, there are millions of dark rogue planets located every year. Few are surveyed or settled except along narrow paths to other stars: the ‘stepping stone’ strategy of interstellar travel and colonization. Cloudchaser is close to the settlement string leading to Teegarden, but far enough off the beaten path to be of little interest. DPS discovered that it had a unique, pulsing thermal signature and investigated it. Most of the dark planets, as you know, are not significantly warmer than the CMB, with a few exceptions, requiring multiple fusion reactors to establish any sort of settlement.”

Lempa grunted acknowledgment.

“Trust me,” Coreman-27 said, “it’s pretty to look at, but nobody but you is going to want to settle here. It has very little free oxygen, for one. And who wants to live on a planet that’s being eaten by another planet?”

He laughed. “You mean, no one else is crazy enough?”

Coreman-27 shrugged one shoulder noncommittally. “Crazy is a relative term. Desires and needs define actions. Even if someone else discovers this, you will already be recorded as the owner. Legally, no one else can land on it without your permission. And, as you said, who’d be crazy enough to try? Worst case, they admire the light show from afar. And you have to admit; it’s unique, like the rest of your collection.”

Lempa nodded. It was something to see. Even as Cloudchaser passed behind Cloud, the planet was trailed by swirling glowing gasses and scattered arcs of lightning, as though some beautiful, angry god was pursuing it.

*   *   *

Chapter 6—Cloudchaser, 2193

The Rusty Tap tailed Lempa to his new world, despite the fact that Lempa had filed a false flight plan to visit Coalring, a darkplanet a little less than one light-year away from Icehouse. Once Bogun had learned of the subterfuge, he filed an identical travel plan to Coalring. People would wonder; Coalring and nearby Grendel were having heated relations, headed toward war, and nobody with any sense was traveling that direction except for arms dealers.

Bogun and Nemala waited patiently for him to set up whatever base he needed to take care of himself and his collection. They drifted in space a hundred million kilometers away, a tiny, undetectable dot lost among a field of stars, and remained in stasis for an extra year.

When they came out of stasis, they closed with the unusual planetary pair, as stunned as Lempa had been as they approached.

“Lempa Tarren is living on that?” Bogun said.

“Technically, he’s in stasis for ten years, plus the time he took to set up, minus the time we were asleep,” Nemala said. “I wouldn’t call that living. And he’s a construct, so maybe he just turned himself off.”

Bogun shook his head. “Not exactly a construct. I read up on his history. He was a human prince on Arnand, a patriarchy, but not heir to their throne. Somehow, he pissed off the king. They give them a choice of death, or being put in an artificial body with no actual rights on Arnand, though they’re still recognized as sentient beings. Their original brains are downloaded, then destroyed, the data transferred into their new crystal brains.”

“If their brains are destroyed, how is that different from dying?”

“Well, they also compress the carbon of the old brain into a diamond, and that becomes part of the new brain, with some impurities added so that it can exist as a working part of the neural network. I don’t think it has any functional value, though. Not really any different than dying, I guess.”

Her face twisted in disgust. “I’m sure that makes them feel better. Sol, that’s brutal.”

“Uh-huh. On Arnand, even in his construct body, he’d have been killed off in a few years if he stayed in the public eye, if people remembered that he’d once been a prince. So Lempa became a recluse and created a fake persona to cover the fact he was artificial. He never showed his face to the public and people started treating him as a mysterious human collector. The king discovered what he’d done, but by that time Lempa had gathered enough resources and contacts to leave the planet.”

Nemala shrugged indifferently. “I can’t say I’m particularly sympathetic to anyone who used to be a prince. Either way, whether he’s turned off or in stasis, he won’t be outside exploring the planet. As long as we can land over a hundred klicks from his setup, coming in below his horizon, he’s not likely to notice us, automatic detectors or not. Look at that,” she said, pointing to narrow, meandering lines on the viewscreen. “He built some roads. Probably to fetch raw materials to build part of his base.”

“See if we can find a place away from the roads, then,” Bogun said. “Maybe those are for automated patrols.”

“Once we land, I want to scatter some of my yeast samples. This will be an amazing environment for fast mutations of the strains I brought.” She tapped the display. “See the lightning area between the two planets? The yeast will have access to both Cloud and Cloudchaser’s atmospheres, storm systems, and all the temperature and radiation gradients in between. Whatever they become, we can sample them before we leave the planet. Maybe I can sell them back to Doyes.”

“Or maybe since they’ll know that the strains you’re bringing back are derived from their own patented strains, they’ll just arrest you and confiscate them,” Bogun said.

She scowled at him. “There are other pharmaceutical companies on other worlds.”

“I’m thinking that it wouldn’t be healthy for either one of us to return to Icehouse,” he replied. “Anyway, it occurs to me that the yeast will have nothing to eat. No one has ever detected life on a darkworld.”

“The yeast can survive on simple sugars, which can form spontaneously from inorganic processes. We might get lucky here.”

 

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Copyright © 2021. Cloudchaser by Tom Jolly

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